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Baby See, Baby Do (newborn)

**How newborns imitate others’ facial expressions**

Many studies have shown that imitation is an important social mechanism. But when are babies able to imitate others around them?  Are they born with any innate ability to engage in this social exchange? In a study that might sound familiar from Psych 101, Meltzoff and Moore (1977) systematically tested whether newborns who were 12-21 days old imitated facial expressions that they saw.


  • You!


Start by looking at the baby with a neutral “passive” face.  Then when the baby is looking, make one of the following gestures four times in about 15 seconds (see image from the original 1977 article). Resume a passive face and see how the baby responds.  Try all five gestures:

–       Lip protrusion

–       Mouth opening

–       Tongue protrusion

–       Sequential finger movement (opening and closing the hand by serially moving he fingers)

–       Head movement in a clockwise motion

meltzoff2 imitation

Notes & Observations

What did you observe? Did your child imitate any of the gestures?

Research Findings & Extension

The study showed that newborns did instinctively respond by consistently imitating the specific facial and manual gestures that they saw. A follow-up study showed the same response in infants only hours old!  This is remarkable because it shows imitation behavior far earlier than it was originally thought to start at 8-12 months. The authors explained the phenomenon as a result of the infant’s primitive ability to “represent human movement patterns they see and ones they perform using the same internal code” (Meltzoff & Moore, 1989, p. 961). This tendency does seem to fade by 2-3 months, possibly because babies can communicate more intentionally by that time.


Meltzoff, A.N. & Moore, M.K. (1977). Imitation of facial and manual gestures by human neonates. Science, 198, 75-78.

Meltzoff, A.N., Moore, M.K. (1989). Imitation in newborn infants: Exploring the range of gestures imitated and the underlying mechanisms. Developmental Psychology, 25, 954–962.